In his review of Get Behind Me Satan, the 2005 album by the Detroit blues-rock duo The White Stripes, the music critic Chuck Klosterman, in typically itemized fashion, quips that the band “has spent five years (a) fabricating characters who were supposed to be authentic, and (b) lying about everything that’s integral to their iconography.” Jack and Meg White pretend to be brother and sister—whether they really are or not is up for discussion—and their stage tableau comprises only three colours: red, white and black—in everything from their clothes (Meg, black-and-white; Jack, usually all red) to the amps, the candy-striper mic stands and all their other equipment.
But, perhaps paradoxically, The White Stripes are also one of the most authentic rock acts of the past ten years: like an increasing number of bands in what was dubbed ‘The New Rock Revolution,’ they play real, live instruments in the studio and on stage—there’s nothing electronically modulated about the band’s sound. This allows them—as it does Akron, oh duo the Black Keys—the room to concentrate on wringing an almost impossibly gigantic sound out of only two pieces of musical machinery.
It is both these sides—the highly performative ‘fake,’ and the sweat-soaked ‘real’—that are displayed, often simultaneously, in a new film by Emmett Malloy, a music-video director who has worked with Ben Harper and bands like Wolfmother and Oasis. In 2007, The White Stripes decided to tour Canada, a country they had previously only glossed over, hopping from city to city.
Instead of playing just major centres, they chose to extensively visit small towns and out-of-the-way locales in provinces that are usually left off most bands’ itineraries—and almost always overlooked by bands as big as The White Stripes.
The documentary—which comes with a 16-track CD of the songs featured in the film—records both explosive performances on stage and intimate moments offstage. This is all ensconced in a rough-hewn, mostly black-and-white visual construction that deliberately recalls the nouvelle vague-inspired cinéma vérité style D.A. Pennebaker used in Dont Look Back, his film about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. Over the course of an hour and a half, Under Great White Northern Lights mixes interview and touristic footage with a catalogue of the major shows the band played—as well as the impromptu, off-the-cuff daytime sideshows they decided to work into the tour schedule.
Giving fans sometimes only half an hour’s notice, and taking place in cafés, a bowling alley and on a bus, these are interesting and often intimate performances that showcase Jack’s formidable musical ability and Meg’s grounded, often self-effacing sense of humour. As well as splicing together live performances, the film highlights the band’s tenth anniversary show in Nova Scotia in a segment which doubles as a brief retrospective of their first decade on stage.
If nothing else, the film should have even non-fans entranced by the mysterious relationship at the core of the band: the final scene, depending on which way it’s viewed, both poses and answers questions about Jack and Meg’s sometimes awkward, unknowable dynamic.
It remains to be seen whether The White Stripes will re-form—Icky Thump is the duo’s most recent record, and they stopped touring in September of 2007 due to Meg’s anxiety issues; Jack, meanwhile, has since taken a trip down super-group avenue, forming two highly successful groups: The Raconteurs, with members of The Greenhornes, and, more recently, The Dead Weather with Allison Mossheart of The Kills.
If Under Great White Northern Lights proves to be their swan song, the band has certainly gone out in style: for capturing and being propelled by the ferocious talent of two of the most interesting musicians of our generation, this truly deserves to be canonised alongside such other great concert films as Scorsese’s The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
A CD/DVD set of Under Great White Northern Lights is out now through Rhythmethod. A deluxe edition—with an exclusive silkscreen print, a hardcover book of photography, an LP of the soundtrack, a 7” single and a bonus DVD, Under Great Nova Scotian Lights, which captures the band’s 10th anniversary concert—can be ordered from whitestripes.com